Join Culinary Backstreets

Sign up with email


Already a member? Log in.

Log in to Culinary Backstreets

Trouble logging in?

Not a member? Sign up!

Tortas are modest in appearance – they resemble flattish cupcakes with minimal adornment – but they taste like breakfast at grandma’s to many homesick Filipinas.

And tortas are a common bond between Nora Galleros, Jeanette Uy and Khaterine Gadingan – Khaty, to her friends. Nora, Jeanette and Khaty grew up in the Southern Philippines, on the island of Mindanao, and think back fondly to the food of their home city, Gingoog (Hee-ngo-og).

In 2004, Jeanette remembers, the “first stop when I came to New York” was to visit her high school friend Nora, who had arrived in 1990 and was running her own business. Jeanette, who loves baking so much that she “could forget time” while in the kitchen, brought Nora a little something to accompany her morning kape, or coffee. Tortas, of course.

Not until 2018, however, did Nora, Jeanette and Khaty sit down together, over a restaurant meal at a shopping mall in Elmhurst, Queens, to discuss a possible business partnership. At first they considered an online-only operation. After all, each of them already had a job (and they still do) – Nora, as the head of an accounting firm, Jeanette, as a special-education teacher, and Khaty, as a physical therapist.

The storefront of Kape't Torta, a Filipino bakery and coffee shop in Queens

Khaty, however, had spotted for-rent signage on a former nail salon nearby. A bus stop was out front, and a subway station was a two-minute walk away. The space didn’t have the ventilation that would facilitate a full kitchen, but a coffee shop and bakery – a place to enjoy kape and tortas – would fit in just fine.

The very name of the shop, which opened late in the summer of 2019, gives a sense of the casual atmosphere. The apostrophe-t is a contraction of “at,” the Filipino word for “and.” So, then, “Kape’t Torta” means something like “Coffee ‘n’ Cake.”

“We didn’t want it to look like a typical Filipino restaurant,” says Nora. Many of Kape’t Torta’s business neighbors are Indonesian, Taiwanese, Chinese, and South American restaurants, with diners and pizzerias thrown in for good measure. The local residential population is just as diverse. To be “more inclusive,” Nora continues, the women collaborated with the architect on a café design that is clean, even a little industrial, “without going overboard.” Edison bulbs hang above a central high table; the lower tables along one side wall are furnished with abundant power outlets.

“Kape’t Torta” means something like “Coffee ‘n’ Cake.”

Along the other wall is a boutique-like mini-grocery, a common sight in many Filipino eateries. The shelves offer beloved products from all across the Philippines – multiple brands of banana chips, for example. But they also foreshadow a larger effort in which Kape’t Torta might be able, in Nora’s words, to “help, in our small way, the economy of the Philippines.”

Gingoog is an agricultural city with a high poverty rate, Nora explains, and although farmers receive help with production, demand from local markets isn’t keeping pace. Since Kape’t Torta already imports a number of Filipino products for its own use, she asks, “can we distribute [these] on a larger scale” and help create a greater demand in the United States?

One such product might be tablea (tah-Blay-ah), cacao beans that have been roasted, ground into paste, and shaped into “tablets” used to make hot chocolate. In the traditional fashion, tablea is transformed into hot chocolate with the aid of a deep bowl and a wooden whisk, which is clasped between the palms and rotated rapidly back and forth. “Every time we go home,” says Jeanette, “we go to the local market because they do it that way.”

Cheese ensaymadas at Kape't Torta, a Filipino bakery in Queens

In the often-busy kitchen of Kape’t Torta, a labor-saving electric device stands in for the whisk, but the tablea itself provides a distinctive touch. When we asked Khaty whether she could tell, at a taste, the difference between tablea from Gingoog and elsewhere, unhesitatingly she answered “yes.” Nora and Jeaneatte nodded agreement.

Kape’t Torta also imports Gingoog buko sugar, sometimes called coconut sugar, to sweeten its baked goods. And a dispenser of the granulated tan sugar stands at the ready for customers who order kapeng barako – that is, barako coffee. Prepared from a varietal of Liberica coffee beans, it’s said to be less acidic than Arabica or Robusta coffees prepared to the same strength. (We haven’t attempted a side-by-side taste test.) Kape’t Torta might be the only business in the New York area that serves this distinctive brew.

What goes best with kapeng barako? We’ve delighted in the torta Cebuana, which hints at anise, and in the torta espesyal, so buttery that it brings pound cake to mind. But we’ve also indulged in the cheese ensaymada, a plumper pastry that’s cheesy on top, cheesy in the middle, and sweet through and through. Think of it as a sticky bun with a Gingoog accent.

  • Rudy’s Bakery and CaféOctober 11, 2021 Rudy’s Bakery and Café (0)
    If we could wind the clock back to 1934, to listen in as Rudy’s Bakery rolled its first […] Posted in Queens
  • Wheel HospitalityMay 3, 2021 Wheel Hospitality (0)
    Bars, cafés, taverns and restaurants have historically functioned as meeting spots for […] Posted in Barcelona
  • Caffè MexicoMarch 3, 2021 Caffè Mexico (0)
    Some people believe that a cup of coffee is the same everywhere. We like to think that […] Posted in Naples
Dave Cook

Related stories

October 11, 2021

Rudy’s Bakery and Café: Baked-In German

Queens | By Dave Cook
By Dave Cook
QueensIf we could wind the clock back to 1934, to listen in as Rudy’s Bakery rolled its first strudel, German is the language we would have heard at the baker’s bench, and beside the glass-fronted display cases, and, more likely than not, on the sidewalk outside, along Seneca Ave. At least since the late 1800s,…
May 3, 2021

Wheel Hospitality: Cycling-Friendly Spots in Barcelona

Barcelona | By Paula Mourenza
By Paula Mourenza
BarcelonaBars, cafés, taverns and restaurants have historically functioned as meeting spots for all kinds of urban communities, from intellectuals to politicians and artists –revolutions have even been planned around the table. Nowadays in Barcelona, another community, one that has flourished in numerous cities around the world, has started gathering in these types of venues: cyclists.…
March 3, 2021

Caffè Mexico: Coffee Dynasty

Naples | By Amedeo Colella
By Amedeo Colella
NaplesSome people believe that a cup of coffee is the same everywhere. We like to think that they haven’t been to one of the Mexico cafés in Naples, where even a coffee novice can understand he has come face-to-face with a very special brew, one that took years to perfect. When you enter a Caffè…
Select your currency
USD United States (US) dollar
EUR Euro